AI content is the talk of the tech town. In fact, it is the talk of the mainstream town too, mostly thanks to OpenAI's ChatGPT natural language processing AI. Major tech companies – notably Microsoft and Google – are now racing to be the leader in this emerging market. However, the way the companies are baking AI into search should be setting off alarm bells for users.
On Wednesday, Google said that it currently has no intention of banning AI content from its search engine. In a blog post, Google essentially says that it will treat AI like any other content, and the user will not know the difference because the company is removing users from the loop.
Alongside Microsoft's giddy all-in approach to AI in recent weeks, and its introduction of ChatGPT-like AI searches into new Bing, Google's response raises all sorts of questions. Google says it will not label content that has been written by AI because dealing with poor quality content is not a new issue and not exclusive to AI:
“Poor quality content isn't a new challenge for Google Search to deal with. We've been tackling poor quality content created both by humans and automation for years. We have existing systems to determine the helpfulness of content. Other systems work to elevate original news reporting. Our systems continue to be regularly improved.”
The company urges content creators – human or AI – to follow the E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) principles:
“Using AI doesn't give content any special gains. It's just content. If it is useful, helpful, original, and satisfies aspects of E-E-A-T, it might do well in Search. If it doesn't, it might not.”
Evolution of Search
It is worth noting that Google has recently announced its Bard natural language processing AI. This is the company's version of ChatGPT. It is almost a certainty that Google will fold Bard into Google Search eventually, matching Microsoft's adoption of ChatGPT in Bing.
What both companies will do is transform how content is acquired online. For users it may seem like business as usual, albeit with a new way of consuming search content. However, it could really mean the end for millions of websites and change the online landscape. And no, this is not an online content creator (yours truly) moaning at the possibility AI will steal his job.
Even if we remove the content itself from the situation, sites are going to become less financially viable in the AI search era. Microsoft has made it very clear what it is doing with new Bing, which also extends as a co-pilot into new Microsoft Edge.
New Bing made its debut in a limited testing preview this week following an announcement from Microsoft. By bringing conversational natural language processing AI into search, Microsoft says it is taking that innovative step. The company promises more fluid search results with life-like responses.
The Bing AI co-pilot will scrape data from websites, which are listed in the footnote of the AI response. Nothing will be off limits. The AI has the ability to curate its information from anywhere online, including breaking through paywalls.
The Content Attribution and Monetization Problem
Following Microsoft's announcement, I wrote that it will be interesting to see how websites feel about their content being scraped (with only a footnote reference to the source). Many may feel that their content is being stolen, even more so if it is paywall-protected. Why does it feel like a Pandora's box of copyright lawsuits are on the horizon?
Microsoft may have its bases covered, but there comes a point where fair use is not really fair. The company is already experiencing this sort of user pushback with GitHub Copilot. The service takes snippets of code it scrapes without permission to help developers fill in code with their projects.
Copilot is currently facing a lawsuit and it is far less egregious than what Microsoft is doing with new Bing and ChatGPT. That's because the search is potentially taking away the ability for a website to make money.
Surely the goal of a website is not only to provide usable content but to also attract users to the site and to make money from ad revenue?
There is no doubt that online monetization is a tricky subject. Many people want to ignore the fact that websites must try to make money for basically giving their content away for free. Driving revenue for websites usually involves the following path.
Create engaging content that ranks well > get ranked highly by Google > a user finds the website through a search > visits the website and interacts with ads > the website makes money.
What happens if you remove one of these steps entirely?
AI search removes the need for users to visit the website. Martin Geuß writing for Dr.Windows [translated from German] does a great job of summing up how AI search could leave millions of websites on the scrap heap.
“The “new Bing” – and possibly also the “new Google” – will in future serve us the information we are looking for in bite-size format. They search various sources and generate a comprehensive answer from them. Ideally, we no longer have to trawl through several pages, the research is done for us.
From the user's point of view, that's a good thing. A disaster for the sites from which the information comes. There is a name for what happens there: content scraping. Someone is “stealing” data from a website and marketing it themselves. That's what's happening with the “new Bing”.”
It is very hard to see an outcome where website users do not rebel against the concepts of AI search. Specifically, that the AI is taking their content without necessarily rewarding them by sending visitors to the site. Microsoft argues that the search will still drive visitors to check out the websites where content is sourced from.
Like many aspects of the growing AI integration into everyday life, we will have to wait and see.
In the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm denounces John Hammond's dinosaur clones with the following remark:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”
It's a great movie line because it sums up the potential folly in technological excess. Let's be clear, AI technology is excellent, it is wonderful, and it is awe-inspiring. It is also potentially dangerous. In the grand scheme of problems AI could cause in the future, messing up search content is fairly low on the list. Certainly, I think Ian Malcolm would rather surface a shoddy piece of AI content than run from a marauding T-Rex.
Even so, how AI content will change the search landscape is interesting. We are in the toddler stage of artificial intelligence; this is all new. But already the technology is transforming how we live our lives, and it may not be for the better. Microsoft and Google are going full steam ahead, so let's hope both companies know what they are doing.
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